Language Learning Never Stops
Speaking and understanding language are probably among the most
complicated things we do. Researchers at the University of Illinois,
Urbana-Champaign, looked at how we learn language and how those language
skills change with new experiences.
Most people think that language is something we learn early
in life. Underpining this KDI project is the notion that throughout our
lifetimes, we constantly learn and relearn how to speak and how to understand.
Language skills require constant "tuning up."
This need for continuous learning and relearning of language
may explain why computers have not been successful at using language. They
cannot adapt their language to changing circumstances, as people do.
Our brains have complex processing systems that enable us to
speak and understand language. Because of these processing systems, we can turn
thoughts into grammatical sequences of words and can understand the speech of
The team of psychologists, linguists, and computer
scientists working on this project used experimental techniques to determine
how recent everyday experience of speaking and listening affects that ability
to construct grammatical knowledge. They looked at how long it takes to learn
new words, common mistakes people make when speaking, and eye movements and
brain electrical activity that occur when words and sentences are understood.
By documenting the adaptability of the human language system, the
researchers hope to help develop technology that uses language, such as
computers that recognize speech. Computers need to be adaptable in the same way
as people are if they are to use language successfully.
The researchers also developed computer models that simulate
language processing. With these models, they hope to learn more about how we
process language and how to design machines that interact with people through
language and speech.
This research has many potential long-term practical
applications. Through insights into how children construct knowledge, the
investigators hope to be able to design better educational environments for
children that will make it easier for them to learn. A better understanding of
how language is learned may also help those with language deficits resulting
from disease or accidents. It should help pinpoint what part of their language
has been affected and allow for targeting of therapeutic services.
Language is what separates us from animals. According to
Gary Dell, the principal investigator, "It makes human intelligence, human
culture, and all of our accomplishments possible. It is by far the most
important way that people use to communicate. Instilling language skills in
children, fixing these skills when they are damaged by disease or accident, and
making our technology work through language are, therefore, important. Such
activities are promoted by research on language and language processing."
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